The Kármán line is defined as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. While the original definition refers to the altitude at which the atmosphere becomes too thin to contribute enough lift to support aeronautical flight, the Kármán line now is internationally recognized to be located at an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 328,084 feet, above Earth’s average sea level (AMSL). Beginning with the German V-2 rocket, the first rocket to cross that threshold, countries have been shooting for space for over half of the past century. Although private companies have been able to reach space and orbit for a few decades, a collegiate team has never independently designed, built and launched a rocket that went to space and was recovered intact. With that knowledge in mind, the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab was founded in 2005 with the goal of being the first student group to do exactly that. A space race arose from universities around the world, as many took incremental steps closer to reaching the Kármán line. Now, 14 years after RPL was created, the collegiate space race has ended; Traveler IV, the latest spaceshot vehicle from the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab, passed the Kármán line on April 21st, 2019.
There are a thousand ways for a rocket to fail, and very few for it to succeed. Despite nearly 15 years of launching some of the most successful student-designed and built rockets in the world, every launch and every static fire teaches us something new and exciting about the complexity of rocketry.
“Fathom” isn’t just an obscure nautical unit of measurement: it can also be used as a verb, meaning to measure a depth, or to understand a concept. Combining these meanings, Fathom was the name given to RPL’s attempt to measure the depth of our knowledge; our attempt to push the limits of our past experience, find problems, and solve them. What began as a single vehicle grew into one of the longest test campaigns in our lab’s history, consisting of six flight-scale static fires and two flights, stretching from February of 2016 to March of 2017. The final result was the highest-performing rocket in RPL history, and a new record for the highest altitude reached by a student-designed and student-manufactured rocket.
At 1:52pm on Saturday, November 21st, Déjà Vu took to the Mojave skies, soaring beautifully from the launch rail to reach apogee at just over 25,000 feet. Déjà Vu was RPL’s first successful launch and recovery since Carbon Coby three years ago. Déjà Vu, however, is last year’s news.
Flash forward three months, and Déjà Vu II (also referred to as Déjà Two) is ready for launch, the second flight of the same vehicle. Same nosecone, same fins, same motor, and same enthusiasm and dedication from the team.
A rocket's simple exterior can make you forget how many different systems lie underneath the surface, and how vital they all are to a successful launch. One thing people often forget about rockets is that while it must endure thousands of pounds of pressure and temperatures that match a small star's, it must also be brought back home (hopefully, in one piece). The avionics and recovery teams are dedicated to doing just this.
Over the last year, activity at the USC Rocket Lab has been astronomical, and we’re not planning on slowing down any time soon! While we’re diving head first into the 2015 semester, we should take a moment to look back at our accomplishments over the last 12 months. From launching the year off with DCX, to solving our problem with multiple static firings of rubber ducky cases, to our final two launches of Flying Dutchman and Tirebiter (which came within 3 weeks of each other), our commitment to lab has never wavered and our morale has never been higher.
Back in 2005, USC's Rocket Propulsion Lab launched its first ever rocket: Del Carbon. Nearly ten years later, RPL launched Del Carbon's new and improved sister: Del Carbon Extreme, or DCX. Designed to reach nearly 264,000 feet and speeds up to Mach 6, DCX would soar more than twice as fast and 26 times higher than Del Carbon. At 11:53am, October 18th, 2014, DCX took to the skies above Black Rock Desert, Nevada, to demonstrate the amazing progress RPL has made.
It has taken three months to write this post, but justly so. Our members have been rightfully catching up on the three months of sleep we each lost as we readied Traveler II for launch in mid-May. With the chaos of a lab move, some rather tedious regulations, and composite material troubles, the semester started off slow. What resulted though, was an extensive to-do list for those brave souls willing to make TII a reality in the final weeks of school...
Traveler was launched on September 21, 2013, after two years of hard work and waiting. The flight ended in an explosion at T+3.5 seconds. Most parts of the rocket were recovered, and some can be reused. Luckily, enough of the motor was intact to piece together the cause of the explosion. This update will cover pre-launch operations, the launch itself, and future plans.